Wild ARMs 5 Review
If you're surprised to see continued consistent support for the PS2, you really shouldn't be, considering there are 130 million consoles worldwide. Many developers and publishers have already pledged more titles for the PS2 well into 2008, which means we'll be seeing a lot more games...and probably, a lot more RPGs. While many believe the PS1 is the role-playing king, one can now make an argument for the PS2; we've already seen several great titles this year, and in a year where the last-gen system was supposed to be obsolete, too. Here, we take a look at the fifth installment in Sony's long running Wild ARMs franchise, which has typically been pretty solid. Unfortunately, most RPG veterans will contend that the original back in 1997 was the best of the bunch, and the series hasn't been fantastic since then. Can Wild ARMs 5 be the great entry we've all been waiting for?
The graphics are about what we expected. As is always the case in this series, you will be exploring the vast world of Filgaia, which is loaded with some nice scenery, plenty of secrets, and lots of caves, forests, and other dungeons to locate and explore. There's an appealing and consistent graphical palette throughout, but there really isn't anything to write home about. Media Vision has delivered a goodly amount of color and even a bunch of engaging environmental details, but beyond that, Wild ARMs 5 is pretty ho-hum from a visual standpoint. Despite a great deal of added effects during battle, you will see run-of-the-mill cut-scenes and gameplay graphics, which may or may not be a deciding factor for you. In all honesty, it probably shouldn't be: while it certainly can't stand up to something like Final Fantasy XII, there isn't a lot to complain about. At the very least, it's a solid presentation, and works well for the adventure.
The sound has always been a staple of the series, and while we didn't quite get the highest level of quality and variety, both the soundtrack and sound effects remain definite positives for the game. The voice acting is a little cliché and can even get immensely annoying at times - the high-pitched screaming matches between Dean and Rebecca can be funny, but also tiring - but it's better than average, and a mix of classical and fast-paced rock tracks cement the soundtrack. It's not brought to the forefront enough during particularly important portions of the gameplay, though, and the battle effects could've been far more diverse. However, these are only minor complaints and shouldn't significantly affect your enjoyment of the game. In fact, the sound will likely increase your enjoyment, if only because they're better than the graphics and fit the atmosphere very nicely. But if you're thinking it might sound like a Western, think again...because it really dosen't. Just an FYI.
The gameplay is a little over-simplified, but it remains fun and accessible throughout your adventure, which begins interestingly enough. You will first play through an introductory sequence of sorts, which lasts for about an hour and a half, and this is when the developers choose to set the tone for the game. You play as 16-year-old Dean, an enthusiastic would-be Golem hunter who, despite having lofty ambitions, remains a little naïve due to his isolation from the big wide world. As is the case with most traditional RPGs, the main hero comes from a very small town kinda out in the middle of nowhere, and that's exactly what we find in Wild ARMs 5. But you also find a childhood friend - and valued battle companion early on - in Rebecca, and at the end of the intro part, things start to get awfully interesting. While trying to prove to your cute red-haired little friend that you're capable of going out into the wilderness on your own, you encounter something completely bizarre.
A giant robotic arm; a golem arm, falls from the sky and crashes into a cave. Inside, you find the arm, and the hand opens up to reveal a silver-haired girl clutching a pair of special ARMs. She has a bad case of amnesia, and can only remember her name (Avril) and another name, "Johnny Appleseed." But she doesn't know what that name means, and she has no idea where she is. Dean and Rebecca offer to help the girl, and it's not long before the ARM-less Dean suddenly has a pair of effective weapons (up to that point, he's stuck with a shovel, believe it or not). Then, after a wee bit of explanation from the mysterious town expert, the threesome set off on a whirlwind adventure that will take them to all four corners of Filgaia. The journey isn't a particularly difficult one, but it's full of both pleasant and harrowing encounters, which is exactly what we'd expect from a traditional RPG.
But the gameplay itself isn't entirely traditional. While the battles are turn-based, the format is relatively unique, although probably familiar to those of you who played Wild ARMs 4. After getting caught in a random encounter, you will be facing a HEX grid, which is reminiscent of a strategy/RPG like Final Fantasy Tactics. You have the option to move to one adjacent space and then execute a particular action, but it goes far beyond this: multiple units can occupy one HEX, and that goes for both the allies and enemies. Whatever happens to that HEX happens to all units inside that HEX, so if you throw up a Heal Berry for an ailing character, and there are two characters in the HEX, both will be healed. If you attack a HEX occupied by two enemies, you will strike both enemies simultaneously. But there's an obvious flip-side to this coin; grouping your allies together for a full heal could backfire, as enemy strikes will nail everybody at once. Therefore, there is always the mini-strategy game of maneuvering your units around this grid, attempting to solidify the best possible positions.
These HEXes may also have individual properties, which is something else you have to realize. Some are elemental, so Fire-based HEXes will increase the amount of damage done by fire-based attacks, and other HEXes offer the Escape option. When you factor all this in with eventual area attacks, you can clearly see the potential for a truly deep and innovative combat system. Unfortunately, they don't really build on the idea too much, and it just never seems to take that next step that would vault it into the "damn, this is cool" category. For veteran role-players, this game won't provide much of a challenge, either, which doesn't really help the cause. Players are automatically healed after every battle, you're never without a bunch of healing items, leveling up and gaining money (Gella) is never all that time-consuming or difficult, and Sol Nigers only add to the ease of play. Sol Nigers can be found in dungeons, and once activated, you will have the option to turn random encounters on or off for that particular dungeon. It's definitely a great option to have, but since when are we supposed to avoid battles? That's almost always counterproductive in every RPG.
Outside of battle, you will come across plenty of puzzles, too. Another very original feature in this series is the ability of characters to interact with the environment in real-time. There are always platforming and action aspects to the exploration in every Wild ARMs, and this one is no exception. Dean can jump, smash, and slide, so he can move blocks, bash jars and crates for potential items, and you will eventually be able to use special ARMs to solve dungeon puzzles as well. This really adds a great deal to a mostly straightforward RPG, and it's something that fans of the series have always appreciated. It's just too bad that few of the puzzles you encounter are anywhere near as tough as the puzzles we found in the first couple Wild ARMs titles back on the PS1. Furthermore, a really loose and sensitive camera gets very frustrating no matter where you are; how come we have to re-set the camera to the desired angle in every new area? It's good that we can control it, but in some ways, we would've actually preferred a decent fixed camera for this game.
Lastly, there's one other fairly unique aspect to this RPG. When exploring around the field map, you can press the Square button and use the "Search" option to uncover hidden treasure chests. This was a feature we saw before in Wild ARMs 3, but at least we don't have to use it to locate towns and dungeons...that was just plain silly. Here, it can be used whenever we want just to scrounge around for some extra goodies, and the treasure locations are usually logical. If you take the time to check all those remote corners on the map, you'll likely find many of the hidden rewards placed throughout Filgaia. In this way, you do have some freedom in exploring your environment, but there are paths that will lead you to locations of interest, so if you stick to those you'll likely come across most towns and dungeons. Between this "Search" feature on the field map, the platforming/action elements in the dungeons, and the well-designed battle system, there's a lot to like in this RPG.
But there are plenty of detractors: there's a lot of genuinely amusing character interaction, but the adolescent teasing and mock anger routines get old quickly, and they simply didn't put enough effort into most dungeons. The environment is fine, but it never offers the breathtaking natural views we were hoping for, and while there is some strategy involved in battle, it usually just comes down to simple planning. The story is pretty good - we won't give away anything beyond that intro - but some of it's a little predictable and it can be easy to lose interest in the plot progress. Overall, though, Wild ARMs 5 is a good and enjoyable role-playing experience, one that fans of the series will undoubtedly like and general RPG fans should consider. You have a couple other solid options out there (stay tuned for our Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 review), but if you want a good-hearted and often-charming game with several original features and elements, you should definitely give this one a try.
10/1/2007 Ben Dutka